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How to not be an asshole

I've been going deep into the rabbit hole of political podcasts lately.  The constant discussion of persecution of marginalized groups and general bigotry wears me down quickly, but it's also too important to ignore.  It's like neo-self-flagellation.

Anyway, one of the points that keeps coming up, but which is never explicitly talked about, hits really close to him for me.  I think it may be one of the central tenets of hate.  And to talk about it, I'm going to start off with my favorite topic: me.  Sort of.

About two and a half years ago, I wrote a few blog posts about the birth of my first daughter, Lulabelle.  Long story short, there were some complications and Lula spent the first week of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where she made a speedy recovery.  Even when she came home with us, though, she was not fully out of the woods - she had a PICC line in place that we used to administer medication for about another week, and then there were a few more follow-up appointments after that.

It was a whirlwind of experiences that were ultimately positive.  I've mostly let go of the fear and drama from those first two weeks and they rarely come up nowadays.  Lulabelle is an active, healthy, fun-loving kid now who's totally upbeat.  There's no need to dwell on that chaos.


Every once in awhile, I'll think about how people reacted when they heard the news about Lulabelle's hospital stay.  Or how people react now on the rare occasions when we retell the story to new friends or acquaintances who weren't present back then.  The vast majority of the time, the reaction is something like, "Oh, how awful!  I'm glad she's better now."

And that's great.  That's all you need to say.  Heck, not even that much.  When we tell the story, Stephanie and I aren't looking to score points at Drama Quest.  Neither of us has been diagnosed with Munchausen syndrome, by proxy or otherwise.  We just tell the story if somebody asks, and then we move on.  Sympathy and well wishes are much appreciated, but you could even just say, "Wow, that sucks," and then we'll move to another topic and it's totally fine.

But there are some people out there - not a ton, but some - who don't do that.  They respond in one of two ways. They'll either say something like, "Oh, that's nothing, let me tell you about the time my sister gave birth, she had a real problem with her baby," or they'll go, "Hmm, you're just being dramatic, Lulabelle was totally fine.  Don't exaggerate."

Those people, whether they realize it or not, are being assholes.  And it occurs to me that they're doing the same thing that all bigots do when they want to marginalize a group.  They pretend the problem isn't real.

When you tell me that I'm exaggerating when I tell you that Lulabelle was born without a heartbeat and wasn't breathing, I don't know what your motives are.  I'm not you.  But what I can tell you is that you're making me - and by extension, my daughter - feel small.  What I hear from you is that her problems weren't actually problems; therefore, if I express them as such, I'm just a whiny shit and I should learn to get over myself.  The real problem here, then, is not an uncontrollable health incident, but rather me and my bad attitude.

Now, let's just shift this slightly.  Pretend I'm black and I'm telling you that I get pulled over by the cops all the time for completely arbitrary things about my car.  I tell you that the police are unfairly profiling me and it's a problem.  When you say that I'm just exaggerating, you're telling me that it isn't institutional racism at fault - it's just that I'm too damn sensitive about race and I'm projecting onto other people who are just trying to do their jobs.  In your mind, I should quit bitching about it.

If I take that to heart and I say, "Gee, I better suck it up, clearly I don't have any actual problems," then I'm letting other people off the hook.  I won't confront the source of the problem because - poof! - suddenly the problem has magically disappeared.  Cops can keep being racist as shit and I'll never get any respect because nobody is acknowledging that the problem exists.

The first step in successfully subjugating somebody is to convince everybody else that everything's fine.  And you might buy into the status quo not out of straight-up, conscious racism, but simply out of plain old assholery.  If you're the type of person who says, "Oh, that's not a real problem," then you're an asshole.  Stop and rethink how you're feeling.  Don't shoot down other people's troubles just because they don't affect you.

And sure, you may get frustrated sometimes because other people's problems do seem minor by comparison to your own.  Yeah, it's a pain in the ass to hear a wealthy cousin complain about how bad the room service was when they went on their vacation while you're struggling to keep your electricity on.  But that doesn't mean your cousin didn't have shitty room service.  It just means that you weren't there to get pissed off by it.

I realize this is not much of a revelation for anybody who's been on the receiving end of it.  But I'm positive there are millions of well-meaning, generally good-intentioned people out there, most of whom are white men, who don't realize they're being assholes like this.  There are folks out there who use the term "Social Justice Warrior" because they think they're being funny, or they roll their eyes and dismiss things as being "politically correct."  Those guys are the ones I'm trying to reach.  So, if you've read this far and you're thinking, "I already know all this," then forward this post to one of your white friends.

Listen guys - I used to be exactly like you.  I used to look at the world purely through the lens of my own problems and I dismissed a lot of things out of hand.  I know it sounds like people are attacking you personally when they talk about things like racism and misogyny.  But it's not about you.  It's about the stuff other people deal with that you never even see.

We all deserve at least a pretense of empathy.  If you want to start making the world better right now, just promise yourself that you'll listen next time somebody tells you they have a problem.  You don't have to give advice.  You don't have to give them moral support.  You don't have to become an activist for their cause. You only need to say, "Gee, that sucks."  You don't even have to mean it, to be honest.  You just have to acknowledge the problem.  That's at least enough that everybody else can start fixing it.